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The value of customer service

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Nestled between Petro-Canada and McDonald’s, Martin Couture’s convenience store has been making the most of the 2,400-sq.-ft. space since he took over in February 2005. “We have expanded from within based on the trends we’re seeing,” he says. “For instance, we’re expanding our beverage offering by going from 14 doors to 20 doors for our cold room this winter.”

Martin Couture of Groupe Naduc in Quebec city January 11, 2017. Photo Francis Vachon.

Photo by Francis Vachon

Projects are part of the business for Martin and his associate, Michel Côté. Operating under the business name Groupe Naduc, they usually have more than one store active at any given time. They have bought and sold other convenience stores, a small grocery store, but this store, simply known as Depanneur, on Wilfrid-Hamel boulevard in Quebec City, is Martin’s ‘baby’. “I live nearby and I am on the floor often, while Michel handles more of the administrative side of the business.”

What’s good for the client… 

“I work for the client first, and then for me. Customer service is the key to our success,” says Martin.

Training new employees is a major time investment, usually a minimum of 20 hours, but it’s an investment that pays off. Training includes both online and hands-on formats for things such as customer service rules as well as norms for top categories including cigarettes, alcohol, lottery and gas. “It’s essential to give clear, real-life examples when training a new employee. It’s also important to do things with new employees and then watch how they do it on their own,” he says.

Martin Couture of Groupe Naduc in Quebec city January 11, 2017. Photo Francis Vachon.

Photo by Francis Vachon

Martin believes in clear instructions for tasks, such as restocking the cold room or filling the display with the brand labels neatly facing the customer. Greater clarity upfront means staff are less likely to run into misunderstandings about how things work in the business.

At Groupe Naduc’s Depanneur, respect is key to reducing staff turnover. Indeed, small gestures of tolerance have kept employee levels consistent and familiar. “When the job is done and the clients are served, I can close my eyes on the use of personal cell phones. I keep in mind that my clients like to recognize the staff and be acknowledged with a friendly face.”

While Petro-Canada sends its own mystery shoppers, Martin also runs his own mystery shopper program where he sends in young people to try to buy cigarettes to make sure his staff properly ID clients. “I tell my staff: don’t think, just check their driver’s licence or health card. It’s too easy to misjudge the age or to be fooled with a fake card.” Martin also engages in conversations with his regular customers about how they were treated in his absence to ensure consistent service regardless of whether or not he’s on site.

Catching wave after wave

Anyone who has been in this business for more than a decade knows the value of watching trends. Martin was an early adopter of ‘three-for’ deal pricing to encourage multiple purchases, and he’s always sure to heavily promote these deals in store.

“We have three screens in the store that feature our special promotions. It’s also on the fridge doors and the featured brand is always the first item on the shelf.” Whether it’s with energy drinks, beer or other categories, a special price to encourage additional purchases is key to higher sales. “Clients are not as faithful as they used to be, so I attract them with a lower price. Once they are in the store, we tempt them to buy more than just what attracted them in the first place,” he says.

The foodservice trend

For any trend-conscious retailer, foodservice should be on the top of the priority list. Customers are looking for high quality grab-and-go meals, so Martin decided to dedicate some square footage for this in his store.

Martin Couture of Groupe Naduc in Quebec city January 11, 2017. Photo Francis Vachon.

Photo by Francis Vachon

Prepared meals have taken over a section of the store. “I rent some space to a man who bakes pizzas, cooks pasta dishes, offers French onion soup, paninis and other hot meals. We may have McDonald’s next to us, but we serve clients fast and with healthier ingredients. Due to the lunch rush, I decided to open a second cash register so we can serve customers even faster on the busiest days, which are typically Thursdays and Fridays.”

He also invested in a five-foot multiple-shelf open fridge that showcases the fresh fruit, cheeses, sandwiches, and raw vegetables on offer for those looking for quick, healthy snack options. The strategy has paid off. Martin is seeing an increase in sales, and that’s great news because prepared meals provide an excellent margin. Overall, the prepared food segment represents 12-13% of total store sales.

For Martin Couture customer service and trend-responsive product selection is what it’s all about. He concludes that with this in place he’s able to provide the level of service that draws customers back time and time again to discover not just what is convenient, but also what’s new and exciting.

Learn from Martin’s success:

  1. Learn to adapt. When you have to respect lease restrictions, it helps to be creative. Martin can’t offer French fries but they can sell hot chips to satisfy a similar craving.
  1. Make your offer appealing. Make it easy for customers to pick and choose what they want from the snack and prepared food section. “We bought containers divided in four sections so that people can create a mix with things like cranberries, cheese, and other tempting items from our open fridge.”
  1. Create an easy shopping experience. Help clients find what they’re looking for, and encourage them to try something new. “I insist on attractive facings. All brand labels face the customers to make it fast to find their favourite brand or to try a new one. With micro beers, labels are so well done that people who enjoy tasting beers will discover new choices.”
  1. Treat staff with respect. Sometimes a gesture like paying a little bit above minimum wage can encourage a student to keep working for us. Flexibility means overlooking minor things. “It’s important to be clear about our priorities with employees; for us, well-stocked, clean displays and great customer service are a must.”
  1. Focus on the appearance of your shelves. Do not underestimate the power of full displays. “Don’t expect to sell $10,000 if you only have $1,000 worth of stock! Clients tell me they enjoy seeing full shelves and displays.” His customers know they’ll find what they want in the clean and attractive shelving units.